GeneWatch PR: Citizens or suspects? GeneWatch response to the launch of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' consultation on police use of DNA

1st November 2006

GeneWatch UK today welcomed the launch of a new consultation on the police National DNA Database (1).

"A massive expansion of the DNA Database has been taking place with no public scrutiny", said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "Your DNA is unique to you and can be used to trace wherever you have been. It can also reveal who you are related to, as well as some health-related information. Keeping people, including children from the age of ten, on a DNA database permanently could allow an unprecedented level of government surveillance. Do people trust this and future Governments not to misuse this information?"

The UK has the largest DNA database in the world, containing nearly 3.5 million people, over 5% of the population. Since April 2004, anyone arrested in England or Wales for any recordable offence has their DNA taken by the police (2, 3). The DNA profile (a string of numbers used for identification purposes) and the DNA sample itself are both kept permanently, even if the individual is never charged with an offence, or is acquitted.

GeneWatch UK recognises the important role that DNA can play in solving crimes. However, taking someone's DNA profile to see if it matches DNA from a past crime is different from storing their DNA profile permanently, just in case they commit a future one. GeneWatch is calling for:

  • A public debate about whose DNA is kept and for how long. GeneWatch favours time limits on retention of DNA profiles on the Database, depending on the seriousness of the offence and whether a person is convicted or not.
  • Better safeguards, including an end to the use of the Database for controversial genetic research, and destruction of DNA samples once the DNA profiles used for identification purposes have been obtained.

Investigations by GeneWatch UK, and answers to Parliamentary Questions, have shown that:

  • The Database and stored DNA samples have been used for controversial genetic research to attempt to predict 'ethnic appearance' from DNA.
  • The company LGC, which analyses some DNA samples for the police, kept its own 'mini-database' of records, undermining claims that access to the Database is tightly controlled.
  • Keeping DNA from innocent people permanently has not noticeably increased the likelihood of detecting crimes using DNA (4).
  • Less than 1 in every 5 people on the Database have been to prison for any offence (5). More than 100,000 people on the Database, including 24,000 children (under 18s) have never been charged with any offence, let alone convicted.
  • There are 300,000 children in total on the Database (aged 10 to 18). Most children are arrested for minor offences, but all have their DNA kept permanently.

For further information contact:

Dr Helen Wallace: 07903-311584 (mobile); 01298871898 (office).

Notes for Editors:

  1. The consultation is available here. The Nuffield Council's press release is available here.
  2. Recordable offences are all those for which police records are kept. They exclude parking fines, but include begging, being drunk and disorderly, and taking part in an illegal demonstration. DNA is taken on arrest without consent from anyone over ten years of age. There are also 18,056 volunteers on the Database.
  3. The Scottish Parliament voted in May 2006 not to adopt the same law as England and Wales. In Scotland, DNA is kept permanently only if a person is convicted of an imprisonable offence. However, people charged with serious violent or sexual offences in Scotland may have their DNA retained for up to 5 years after acquittal.
  4. Detected crimes are those considered 'cleared up' by the police, usually because they have led to a prosecution or a caution. There were 20,489 crimes detected in which a DNA match report was available in 2003/04, 19,873 in 2004/05 and 20,349 in 2005/06. During this time an extra 1.5 million people were added to the Database. DNA detections are a better measure of success than DNA matches, because many DNA matches are with innocent passers-by or victims of a crime. However, there is no information about how many DNA detections led to successful prosecutions.

Of 3,457,000 individuals with a DNA profile retained on the National DNA Database, 636,271 (18%) have had a custodial sentence.

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